Main The Apple: History's Greatest Mystery. Mankind's Greatest Theft.

The Apple: History's Greatest Mystery. Mankind's Greatest Theft.

For 6000 years, they’ve protected Eden’s mysteries. Now someone is about to commit history’s most daring theft… Queen Azura would sacrifice her life to fulfill her ancestors’ sacred mission. For thousands of years the Sentinels have safeguarded Eden and the Tree of Immortality. But one fateful night she awakens to find a man with a bullet wound in his head and an empty branch where the apple once hung. He has no memories, not even his name. Nursed back to health by stern islanders who demand answers, he worries his nightmares of secret gates and a monstrous seven-headed serpent may be real. And if he doesn’t piece together the visions soon, his caretakers could become his executioners. As the strange man struggles to recall how he came to the island, Azura fears someone has the means to defeat all their safeguards. And with the temptation of life everlasting, it’s only a matter of time before the would-be-killer strikes again. Can Azura and the outsider solve the riddle before Eden’s final secret is exploited for evil? The Apple is an innovative, fast-paced thriller. If you like unique puzzles, ancient legends, and a pulse-pounding twist on a familiar story, then you’ll love Devashish Sardana’s action-packed adventure.
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A Chance at Love

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Best Friend's Boyfriend

Language: english
File: EPUB, 353 KB

by Devashish Sardana

Copyright © Devashish Sardana, 2019 All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system—except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a magazine, newspaper, or on the Web—without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Dedicated to Megha Kapoor, my wife and best friend, my Apple

Table of Contents









































Part One

Finding Eden


The Day It Is Stolen

Azura, the Queen of Sentinels, jolts straight up in bed, sleep abandoned, dream forgotten.

A lightning bolt illuminates the night sky outside. White light seeps through the veins of darkness, igniting life in the dead of night. Boom! Thunder tears through the white light, nipping its fairy wings before they spread.

Azura’s chest heaves as she hauls broken chunks of air into her lungs. Her heart is on fire, like a piece of it has been ripped apart; grabbed, jerked, and yanked out. Unimaginable pain engulfs her. She has never felt this way. Never.

Am I having a stroke? No, can’t be. I am too young to have a stroke.

She gasps. She remembers her mother’s dying words. And she knows. She knows what the ripping means: for the first time in six thousand years, it has been plucked, stolen, gone.

How is it possible?

She clutches her chest and cries through gritted teeth. “Guards!”

Her voice fails against the ravaging duel between thunder and lightning. She draws a deep breath.


Two men, dark of color and heavy of build, charge into the hut. They wear skirts made of pine needles. The loosely bunched pines waft in the breeze and crackle as the men dash into the room. Both carry tridents, three-pronged spears. Their sinewy, hairless chests shine brilliantly in the white light that dapples through the meshed window in the room. Apart from the pine skirts, they wear nothing. No armor, no ornaments.

“My queen?” says one of the guards.

“Wake…” Azura pauses and bites her lower lip to wade through the burning in her heart. “…wake Commander Bani. Gather troops.”

The guard glances at his comrade, who looks at him, equally confused. He considers asking ‘Why?’. But one never questioned the queen. Instead, he asks, “Now, my queen?”

Azura glares at him. Her eyes ablaze, her countenance fierce.


“Umm…” The guard looks everywhere except directly at Azura. “…what should I tell the commander?”

“Tell her it has been stolen.” Azura takes a deep breath. “An apple from the Garden of Eden has been stolen.”


I Dream Of Saraph

“Welcome to North Sentinel Island, the last untouched island on Earth!” pronounced the girl in exuberant delight.

The two-seater kayak splashed onto the beach and came to a sudden halt. Almost on cue, the half-crescent moon brushed aside wisps of dark clouds and revealed its glorious soft curves.

“Shhh! Keep your voice low!” he whispered.

“Relax, darling.” Her tone was one usually reserved for a pet puppy. “Based on the drone surveillance report, the Sentinel guards never patrol this bay at night.”

He knew this. He had read the surveillance report. Twice. After he wrote it. After manning the drone. Himself. But, if there was one thing he swore by, it was caution. Which was counter-intuitive to the profession he had chosen, that is if one could call treasure-hunting a profession. But, then, years before word got around about his treasure hunting ability, he was a ten-year-old swindler on the streets of war-torn Mogadishu (Somalia) in the early 1990s, helping resistance fighters kidnap spoilt rich brats of corrupt Somali politicians. He hadn’t cared if the brats were grown men or his age. He needed the money to feed his baby sister and fend for himself. Especially after his parents had chosen to go grocery shopping the same day a suicide bomber visited the neighborhood market. Swindling was just a job that put food in the stomach – that’s how he tried to convince himself always, never successfully. But it was a job that required above anything else, caution.

“I know, Michelle!” He couldn’t help with undertones of exasperation in his voice. He wasn’t sure if the annoyance was directed at Michelle or his past sins.

He sighed. “That’s what scares me. What’s so treacherous that they don’t even bother to patrol this bay at night?”

Michelle ignored him. She raised her hand to check the time on her gaudy pink watch. He had gifted her the analog watch on their one-month dating anniversary. She wanted to celebrate the “big occasion”. She’d asked – no, demanded – a gift. For his mental wellbeing, he kept the frivolous thoughts of protestation to himself, and carefully picked a gift with Michelle’s favorite Disney character – Elsa, the Snow Queen from the movie Frozen. Now, sitting behind Michelle in the kayak, he saw Elsa glow in the dark, clamping both hands above her head at twelve. Midnight. Give or take a few seconds.

“Right on schedule!” Michelle announced. She unhooked her seat belt, grasped the strap of her cross-body satchel and jumped onto the beach. “Let’s go! Let’s go!”

The kayak wobbled in the squashy sand. He braced himself, still strapped in the seat. He shook his head. There was no point in asking her to keep the excitement levels down. Michelle was born that way.


He unhooked the seat belt and stood. Cautiously, one foot at a time, he stepped onto the beach, trying to prevent his boots from sinking in the mushy sand. The boots were new, especially bought for the mission; carefully polished and shined an hour ago with such gusto that now he saw the silhouette of his reflection in the boots before they sank into the mush. He grimaced. All that effort. Wasted.

He unzipped the thigh pocket on his trousers and took out a compass. “Let me align our direction with true north.”

The instructions from his rich client, Dr. Costello, the aging chairman of the biggest pharmaceutical company in the world, had been simple: “At Sentinel’s end, let the true north guide you to the Garden.”

Dr. Costello had elaborated between coughs that sounded like the old man’s death knell (lung cancer?). Sentinel’s end meant the North Sentinel Island. It was a speck off the southern coast of India in the Bay of Bengal. A quick Wikipedia search told him it was home to the last uncontacted tribe on Earth – the indigenous Sentinels, apparently among the first homo sapiens to walk the Earth. The Indian government had banned any contact with the Sentinels after peaceful anthropological missions to the island had turned ugly. The Sentinels had attacked the gift-bearing anthropologists with spears and arrows. As if the Sentinel’s entire existence depended on protecting the island. They wanted no friends, no gifts. They wanted to be left alone. The Indian government had complied. What riches could they hope to claim by invading a tiny island of hunter-gatherers in the middle of the ocean?

True north, Dr. Costello had explained, meant the North Star. And the Garden – here was the kicker – was the lost Garden of Eden! He was drinking coffee (black, no cream) when Dr. Costello had made the revelation. He all but spewed the coffee on the expensive-looking Turkish carpet in the chairman’s plush London office. “It is a myth!” he had protested. But Dr. Costello had convinced him. Not with logic, not with scientific research. With a signed blank check.

But, finding the Garden of Eden was only half the mission. Finding the Apple Tree of Immortality inside the Garden was the other half. The better half. Dr. Costello had promised, “Bring me an apple, ripe and uneaten. Prove its existence to me, and another check will be yours.”

Now, he replayed the vague instructions to reach the Garden in his mind. He knew from past treasure-hunting expeditions: having instructions to reach the prize was one thing, successfully finding the actual prize was another. Who knew what dangers lay ahead?

He flicked open the compass and aligned it with a narrow path, the only path out of the bay.

Michelle walked over and cupped his face with her hands. Two green eyes, like oval emeralds floating in cream – an endowment from her Slavic heritage – gleamed at him from beneath her long, fake eyelashes. Her face was spotless – no freckles, no age spots. But without the usual touch of color cosmetics, her face reflected a pale, almost yellow, hue.

“Darling,” she said softly. “You don’t need a compass. At least not yet. There is one way out of this bay. And it follows the North Star. We did our research. We prepared for three months. We know this.” She spoke like she was talking sense into a five-year-old. “Now let’s go and get some action!”

“It’s never a bad idea to double-check. But you are right,” he said, closing his compass. “We know where to go from here.”

She gave him a quick peck on the lips. They switched on their heavy-duty neon flashlights. She clutched his hand and led the way. The beach merged into a thick forest walled by tall, impenetrable trees. There was only one way into the forest; only one way that perfectly aligned with the North Star. It was a narrow forest trail, beaten down centuries ago with such force that not a shrub had dared to grow since.

“Is the dagger secure?” he asked.

She nodded and pointed to her right boot. Dr. Costello had given them the dagger. It was an ancient blade made of silver, short, wide with sharp serrated ends. On its handle was carved a seven-headed snake, a king cobra, its seven heads bunched together like a protective canopy overlooking the blade. According to Dr. Costello, it was “The key that unlocks the gateway in the tree.” Which gateway and which tree he had no clue.

They entered the hallowed forest in a single file. Suddenly, wings fluttered, branches shook, and leaves fell. A raucous chirping of crows filled the air. Chirping that sounded more ominous than cheerful. They stood there, stunned.

“That was scaryyy!” She tittered.

“Well, seems like we are not welcome here,” he said.

She let out an involuntary laugh. “Ha! What were you expecting? A bow-tie wearing concierge with a welcome drink in hand?”

They brushed aside the momentary scare and marched on. The path meandered like a lazy snake. It narrowed with every step. Occasionally, they had to walk sideways, shoulder to shoulder, to maneuver the tight path. No one spoke a word. He was enjoying the solemn serenity. She was scared.

They came to an abrupt halt thirty minutes into the trek. A gigantic redwood tree blocked their path forward. He flashed his torch from the bottom to the top of the tree. And then on either side. There was nowhere to go, except to trace their steps or cut through the dense foliage on the sides with a machete.

“Well, that’s a quick anti-climax to our adventure.” She still seemed nervous. “On the bright side though, now you know why Sentinel guards don’t patrol this area. It’s nothing but a dead end.”

“No, this might be the tree with the gateway.”

“Do you see any gateway in the tree? I don’t.”

He shook his head. “They beat this path for a reason.”

“Yes, someone beat it for a reason. But later someone else planted a tree to secure the path. Just like our politicians,” she snickered. “One does the work, and the successor overturns it.”

He wasn’t convinced. He hadn’t prepared for months and come this far to turn back within half an hour. He moved closer to the redwood and flashed the light on its trunk. The trunk was massive, as wide as the red buses in London. It stood like a fifty-story skyscraper in the middle of the forest. He examined the trunk from its leftmost corner to its rightmost, scraping his hand over the bark, stopping at every contour that seemed out of place. But there was nothing out of the ordinary.

Till his hand reached the middle of the tree.

A paper-thin rectangular slit had been incised into the bark. He focused his flashlight on the slit. The wood had been shaved off. Right above the slit was a mark. He bent closer and squinted at the carving. It made his heart knock faster.

“What is it?” the girl asked.

“Show me the dagger.”

“Why, what is it?”

He stepped away from the tree. “I think we found the gateway to Eden. Look.”

She squinted at the spot illuminated by his torch and gasped. A coiled, seven-headed snake was carved on the tree. It was the same mark as on the head of the dagger.

She bent hastily, threw aside her smoky brown hair, and took out the dagger strapped inside her boot. She placed the blade next to the mark on the trunk. There was no denying it. The marks were identical.

“Wow!” She exhaled the breath she had been holding.

“There is also a slit below the mark,” he said. “I bet the dagger goes there. The key to open the gateway.”

“Then what are we waiting for?”

She stepped forward, located the slit, lined up the tip of the dagger, and thrust it into the redwood. She let go of the dagger.

They waited. Nothing happened for a few seconds. Then, suddenly, the dagger handle started to glow a bright crimson. The dagger itself started to quiver as if waking up from slumber after years. It was both frightening and fascinating.

“What’s happening?” she said, her voice a blend of impatience and fear. “Should we run away?”

He shook his head, his gaze never leaving the enchanted dagger.

Slowly, the dagger started carving into the trunk, like a crimson laser beam cutting through wood. They watched in awe as the dagger traversed a full circle, steadily carving an oval door large enough for five people to walk through the tree together. Once the door was carved, the dagger fell to the ground. It lay motionless, no longer bursting with crimson hues, in deep slumber again.

They glanced at each other, unsure of what to do next.

She took a step toward the dagger and was about to pick it up when he said, “Wait! Don’t use bare hands. It might be hot.”

He took out a cotton handkerchief from his pocket and used it to pick up the dagger.

He chuckled. “Would you believe it’s freezing cold!”


“Here you go.” He offered her the dagger.

She gingerly touched the dagger with her finger, as if the carving was a real snake. The dagger was icy. She took it from him and secured it in her boot.

“Time to open the door,” he said.

He gently pushed the door in the tree. The large block of cut wood fell into the doorway, revealing a huge dark hole in the tree and beyond. He waited, trying to hear the crashing sound of the falling door contacting the floor. There was no sound. No way of deducing the depth of the fall. It was as if there were an abyss beyond the opening.

He bent forward to inspect the deep black hole. He put his hand into the hole, one finger at a time, unsure of what lay beyond. For a moment, he imagined some black magic would transport him to their destination. Or worse, someone would grab his hand and drag him into the abyss. But nothing happened. It was just that – a large black hole of nothingness.

He turned and faced the girl. “What now?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I do not-“

Suddenly, he saw her eyebrows contort as she focused on something behind him. Her pupils dilated, her mouth opened, and blood drained from her face as she forgot to breathe for a second. She looked shaken to the core.

“Welcome!” He heard a deep-throated voice behind him.

He twisted on his heels. Standing between him and the black hole stood a creature. A creature he had only seen once in his life - on the dagger handle.

A seven-headed snake!

Bright yellow eyes drilled him. At about twenty feet, as tall as a duplex house, the snake towered over him. Seven blood-red fork-like tongues stuck out from each head, hissing menacingly. The snake had emerald-green horns, each adorned with a diadem. Like a prince among snakes. He couldn’t decide which part of its anatomy he dreaded most – the terrifying eyes, the hissing tongues, or the sharp horns. While he contemplated in a frozen stupor, the snake opened its belly and out came two human-like hands. The hands were fire-engine red. Milky goo dripped from them. He grimaced and retched, both at the same time.

The snake joined its hands at the palms. “Welcome! I am Saraph, the gatekeeper of paradise, the Garden of Eden.”

He finally blinked and moved his lips, “You can speak?”

Saraph laughed, a terrifying boom of noise interspersed with hissing.

“Usually that’s not the first thing humans say when they see me.”

“Then what do they say?”

“I don’t know. I can’t hear them.”

“What do you mean you can’t hear them? You can hear me fine right now.” He realized his accusatory tone the moment the words left his mouth. He took a step back, fearing unthinkable repercussions from a giant snake.

Saraph lowered its seven heads close to his, the slippery tongues inches from his face. Saraph hissed, “I can’t hear them because they are in my mouths by the time they open theirs to speak. After that I only hear the crushing of bones in my throats.”

He cringed while Saraph hissed. It sounded like glee.

“Then why do you welcome us and not…” he looked askance at the girl before finishing the thought, “… and not kill us.”

“I am the Gatekeeper of Eden. I respect the key. You used the key to unlock the door, so here I am welcoming you. If you had forced open the door, I would be having dinner right now.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

Finally, Michelle spoke up with her usual exuberance. “Okay, great! Can we enter the Garden now?”

“Of course! All you need to do is leap into the hole in the tree,” said Saraph. “Are you ready?”

Michelle hesitated. She looked at him, her face confused - should we trust this creature?

He shrugged and nodded. What else could they do? You obey a seven-headed snake or get eaten alive.

“Yes, we are ready,” she finally replied.

“Very well.” Saraph slithered away from the tree. It coiled its long, scaly body and sat behind them. “You may jump. One at a time.”

They inched to the edge of the hole.

She whispered to him, “I feel like a cornered deer, forced to jump off a cliff.” She forced a smile. “See you on the other side. Hopefully still alive!”

Before he could muster a reply, Michelle leaped into nothingness. He heard her shriek, a cry that dulled to nothing after a few moments. She was gone. Alive or dead, he had no clue.

He waited at the threshold where the earth met oblivion. His instincts told him not to jump. Every inch of his body told him that something was not right. Why would you fall into paradise? Don’t you soar to paradise or heaven? You fly, you don’t fall. You only fall into-He gasped at the realization. Hell!

He felt a cold shudder on his spine and a slimy tongue on his nape.

“Just having the key does not make you worthy of Eden,” Saraph hissed in his ear. “First prove yourself worthy. Pass the three divine tests of body, mind, and soul. And you shall find Eden.”

And two slimy hands pushed him into hell.


Who Am I?

“No! Don’t push me into hell!” My voice reverberates in my ears.

I fall through darkness; fall till my shoulder hits the ground hard, darkness till I open my eyes and bright sunshine blinds me. I blink rapidly. I am on the floor. I look around and find myself in a small, clean room. No Saraph. No girl. I brighten up at the realization - it was only a dream. Saraph and the girl were figments of my imagination. The reality is calming. Of course, seven-headed snakes with slimy red hands do not exist. Of course, the girl was imaginary. What was her name? Yes, Michelle. She felt so real, but I am sure I don’t know her.

The room is cubical, maybe ten feet in all three dimensions. Big enough to comfortably hold two people my size. But nothing more. Right next to me is a bed of sorts, a rectangular block of stone covered with soft shrubbery. Must be the bed I fell from when Saraph pushed me in the nightmare. There are no windows in the room. It’s completely airtight apart from the door. Is it a prison?

I suddenly realize that these are strange surroundings. I have never been here before. Where am I? Panic starts to grip me.

“Hello! Anybody there?” I shout.

Nothing happens. Then, after a few moments, I hear the door open. By the time I raise my head and look, the door is banged shut again.

I hear a muffled voice bark an order outside, “He is awake. Call the queen!”

The queen? Did he mean Queen Elizabeth of England? I look around the room again. Doesn’t look like Buckingham Palace.

I shut my eyes. Suddenly, I hear a suppressed giggle. I open my eyes again. Instant pain ignites inside my head. It is unbearable. I press my head with my palms and clench my eyes shut. I start counting loudly, “One, two, three…”

Now I hear loud, unsuppressed giggling. I look up. The door is ajar. A little girl, maybe five years old, is peeking through the half-open door. The girl’s laughter is infectious. It makes me smile. The smile works like magic and the throbbing in my head subsides.

“Hi there.” I wave my hand sluggishly. “What’s your name?” I ask.

The girl, still giggling, puts a hand on her mouth and runs away, banging the door shut behind her. Who was she?

I take a deep breath. I smell an instantly gratifying aroma - the smell of fresh rain. The room isn’t as airtight as it seems. I hear the rain falling, the faint sound of pitter-patter on the roof. It calms me a little.

I push myself to sit up, but my whole body feels sore, as if I have not moved a muscle in years. As I rise, my head starts to spin again. What is the problem with my head? I stop trying to get up and lie down. “Calm yourself and rest,” I tell myself loudly.

“Fallen to the ground, have you?”

I look up and glance at the strange girl—woman?—standing at the door. She is tall and lean, with petite yet muscular curls in her arms. Her skin tone is a darker shade of caramel and her face brims with youthful luminosity.

But everything else about the girl seems odd; odd because of her garb. She is wearing a flimsy skirt made of pine needles, strung around her waist with vines. Two immense pink flower petals cover her voluptuous breasts. Lavender orchids adorn her wrists. And, precariously balanced atop her mane of curly black locks, is a headdress, a crown of sorts, made of rainbow-colored flowers and twigs.

“You have finally woken up after many a day.”

I keep staring, trying to search my memory for any recollection of her. Her tiny, beak-like nose is too peculiar to forget. The sharp bend in the middle makes her look like a cute flamingo, ready to nibble at me. I am certain I don’t know her.

She looks around and notices a wooden stool in the far corner of the hut. She picks up the stool and sets it beside where I lay on the ground. She sits with a flair, a lady-like elegance. A circular locket made of metal, probably silver, dangles from her neck and glints in the light.

“Do you know what I am talking about?” she asks.

“Who are you?” I question back.

“I am Queen Azura. Who are you?”

“I am…”

Oh my God! Who am I? I cannot remember my name. I summon my thoughts to muster an answer. But no reply comes from my seemingly dead brain.

“What’s my name?” I mutter.

“You don’t know your name? Do you even have a name?”

I snap at her. “No, my parents thought how fun would it be not to give me a name.”

“Calm down. People here would not take kindly to your tone.”

“Calm down? How can I calm down? How can I possibly begin to calm down?” My tone intensifies with each question.

Azura sighs.

I continue the rampage. “I wake up in a bizarre place. I am talking to a strange girl. I cannot even remember my name. I don’t know where I am or how I got here in the first place. And you want me to calm down?”

Azura raises her eyebrows as she picks up on something I said.

“So, you do not remember how you got here? Interesting,” she says half smiling, half nodding, with a faraway look in her eyes, her fingers rubbing the locket around her neck absent-mindedly.

Nothing enrages me more than her distrustful half-smile. Does she think I am lying?

“I have had enough of your mysterious babbling. Tell me, where am I?”

My pointed remark brings her back from her momentary trance.

She looks at me sharply, weighs her thoughts and says, “You are on North Sentinel Island.”

I have heard that before...where?

She continues, “It is the last land unexplored by your kind.”

“My kind? What do you mean?”

“I mean outsiders. Like you. The curious outsiders who for centuries have tried to unravel the secrets of our land. The pathetic outsiders who have never been able to set foot on this island, lest we chopped their legs and left them on the beach to die.”

Her outburst filled with both disdain and calm practicality leaves me speechless. I shift my gaze to check and ensure the wellbeing of my legs. Ah, still there. I heave a sigh of relief.

She stands up and speaks firmly, “We are the protectors of this island. We are the Sentinels.”

“The Sentinels? I have never heard of you,” I say.

She starts to laugh in my face. “You have never heard of us and still here you are. Care to enlighten me how you got here if you didn’t even know we existed?”

“I don’t know. I can't remember anything.” A deep frustration churns inside me.

I press my temple to dampen the pain that is starting to grip me again. Azura notices my discomfort.

“Come, let’s get you up from the ground.”

She bends to help me up. Leaning on her shoulder, I manage to sit on the stone bed.

She rummages through a hidden pocket in her pine skirt and takes out three scarlet colored leaves. She hands them to me and says, “Chew these, you’ll feel better.”

I do as directed, and indeed the leaves prove magical. I feel instant relief.

“Thank you. I feel much better.”

She moves closer, looks me straight in the eyes and whispers, “Do you know you are the first outsider who breached this island unnoticed? And the first to successfully steal what we have protected for centuries. Tell me, where is it?"

I know that being a first at something is usually a reason for celebration. Instead, I feel threatened. Her last sentence is ominous of the evils that may befall me, if I don’t find the answer, and find it soon.

I tread with caution. "I would gladly tell you, but my memory won’t agree. Leaving aside what I stole, I don’t even remember how I got onto your island."

"How do I know you are not lying... you filthy outsider!" With that, she reaches for the inside of her right thigh and unveils a dagger.

"I have lived among your kind long enough to know your lies. You grimy beings are capable of killing your mothers with darts of lies."

She flashes the blade and looks me straight in the eyes. "If I tell you that I am going to take away your manhood, do you believe that I am lying?"

"I am telling you the truth, Azura. Believe me." Fear dries up my mouth.

She presses forward, grabs my balls, and says, "Believe you me. I tell the truth as well."

And she slits the string of the pine skirt I am wearing. It falls to the sides revealing my nakedness. I become numb. I want to stop her, even wrestle her, but my body becomes heavier with each passing moment. I try to lift my hand to push her away. But the best I can accomplish is to push the air with my finger.

She throws her head back and laughs. "What happened? I am sure you haven't forgotten how to fight. That is a primal human instinct and requires no memory."

I try to move with all the strength that is left in me. No success.

"You know why you feel numb? It's the scarlet leaves that you ate so eagerly. We call it the Truth Essence. It makes you numb and forces the truth out of you. Now, tell me where you have hidden it?"

"I told you I don’t know." I whimper. "Please don't do this. I beg you."

"Then you are of no use to me anyway."

Pressing the blade against my bare skin, she whispers, "It's always cold before the warmth of blood shrouds it. Any last words as a man?"

I let out a deep breath and say, "I can't make you believe me, Azura. In God I trust, and I trust that He knows the truth. That is good enough for me."

I close my eyes and wait for the bloody turn that my life is about to take. There is pin-drop silence in the room; the calm before a blood-red storm.

"You tell the truth," Azura says finally. Her voice is as composed as I first heard it. "No one can escape the power of the Truth Essence for this long, especially when compounded by fear of life."

I open my eyes, dizzy in the aftereffects of the drug she gave me.

She puts the dagger away and shouts, "Guards!"

Two men charge in. They carry tridents and wear nothing but skirts made of pine leaves, just like the one I was wearing.

"Take him to the guest quarters,” she orders.

Heavy hands lift my shoulders and my legs, and off I go, dangling in a tipsy world. I notice Azura walking beside my baggy body. But drowsiness clouds my vision. After a few moments, I can hardly see her. Or the guards clutching and carrying me. But before sleep engulfs me completely, a glistening metal on Azura’s thigh catches my attention. It’s the dagger with which she had threatened me. I find the seesawing motion of the dagger immensely intriguing; flapping this way and that, caressing her naked leg.

Before I completely close my eyes, it hits me where I have seen the seven-headed snake carved on the dagger before - in the dream.


Spiders or Scorpions?

“Hey! Watch where you are going!” Michelle cried out as he rammed into her from behind.

He lay flat on stone-cold ground. He recalled being pushed into the dark chasm by Saraph. He remembered falling with a thud onto a slant, winding tunnel and sliding down till he crashed into the girl from behind.

“Sorry.” He moaned. He raised his head a little, his eyes groping in the dark for a visual of Michelle. It was pitch black. She switched on her flashlight and pointed the light in his face.

“Hey! Move it away!” he yelled, covering his eyes with his hands.

She moved the torch away and laughed. “Serves you right, mister!”

He wasn’t amused. He blinked several times as his eyes adjusted and managed to make out a silhouette of Michelle. He stood, dusting his clothes of dust he could feel but not see.

“What is this place?” said Michelle as she flicked her flashlight haphazardly around her. “Looks like an abandoned cave.”

He clicked on his flashlight and shone it straight in front of him. There was a narrow, bumpy path that went deeper into the cave. Irregular rocks jutted out from both its sides. He flashed the light above him and followed the roof. It was rocky and crooked, rising above ten feet where they stood and plunging to three feet at the farthest point he could see. He groaned. He was six feet two inches. Traversing through three feet meant crawling on all fours in an old, dusty cave.

“AHHH!” Michelle suddenly shrieked.

“What happened?” He flashed the light in her direction. She stood a few yards away, staring directly at a rocky bulge on the right side of the wall.

She gulped. “There is a HUGE spider on the wall.”

He ran to where she stood. On the wall, scampering away to safety, was a baby tarantula.

He forced hard not to laugh. “You call that HUGE?” he mimicked her.

Michelle nodded vigorously, her eyes bulging like a scared puppy.

He burst into laughter. Her expression was too cute not to laugh.

“Don’t mock me!” she said sternly.

The reprimand made it worse. He guffawed, his shoulders shaking with glee.

“Get lost! I am not talking to you!” She stormed into the cave with long, angry strides. It took him a moment to come out of the outburst that had befallen him. He ran to catch up to her.

"I am sorry. I was messing around, babe," he said.

"I said I am not talking to you.” She suddenly stopped. Jabbing a finger in his chest, she said, “And if you dare call me 'babe' again. I'll rip out that tongue of yours."

"I am sorry, Michelle. I really am." He cautiously put his hand on her shoulder to comfort her.

She flicked his hand away like an unwanted insect. "Don't touch me! Just. Stay. Away." He could not fight with such finality in her voice. It was best to stay quiet.

They walked in silence. Anger fueled her swift strides, and he barely managed to keep up, crouching and squeezing through rocky walls as the grotto narrowed further. His breathing became shallow as claustrophobia spread its roots in his heart. His mind went into overdrive, answering questions with more questions. When are we going to get out of this place? What if we don't get out of this place ever? Do we have enough food to last us a week? Oh no, we don’t have enough food! Then, will we die here? Will Dr. Costello send reinforcements to find us?

Lost in thought, he barely registered Michelle's warning, "Quick, bend your head. Now!"

He was a second too late.

Expecting to hit a low hanging rock, he rammed full-face into something mushy. Relieved that he didn't break his nose, he embraced the caress of satin. But, he soon realized that the satin stuck to his face. He instinctively used his hand to tear it away. Just as immediately, his hand got stuck to his cheek. He tried to jerk his hand away, but in vain. He was stuck. In a moment of panic, he grasped what the sticky satin was – a cobweb.

"Help! I am stuck!"

Michelle arched her face, gave him a condescending smile, and said, "Now, who is laughing?"

“Michelle, we don’t have time to play games! Help me out!”

Michelle crossed her arms. “No! First, say you are sorry.”

“But I said I was sorry before!”

“Did you?” Michelle looked genuinely confused. “Then say it again.”

Argh! He glowered but decided to play along. "OK! I am sorry. Really sorry! Happy?"

"Good. Now, say please get me out of here, babe."

He would have banged his head into the wall if he wasn’t stuck. She was ready to rip his tongue out for calling her ‘babe’, and now she herself…argh!

He seethed. "Babe. Please. Please. Get me out."

"Good boy!”

Michelle reached for her boot and took out the dagger. She juggled the dagger in her hands and said, “Now stand still while I get you out of this mess."

The dagger cut sticky cobwebs like a knife cutting through air. In no time he was a free man, except his hand was still stuck to his face.

She giggled at his plight. "I am glad your hand is not stuck to your lips.” She moved closer. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to do this…” She leaned into him and pressed her soft lips to his. His pupils dilated, and a flutter ran from his head to toe. He clumsily put his free hand on the small of her back and pulled her closer. He kissed her. One deep kiss to satiate his core, one long kiss that left her breathless. He kissed her again. The second time it was rough, driven by raw hunger for her.

The urge to give in completely pecked between her thighs, but sanity prevailed as she remembered where they were. "Okay. Let's stop before I cannot say no."

"Well, then let me make it easier for you to not say no," his voice was a heavy whisper.

"Oh! No. No. No. You stay where you are. This is neither the place nor the time."

She gave him a quick peck on the lips and continued, "First, let’s free your hand.” With delicate hands and precision of a surgeon, she cut through sticky cobweb without scraping his cheeks.

“Terrific job, Michelle!” she exclaimed once his hand was free again. “Now, let's get out of this spider-hole."

His body tensed up all of a sudden.

"Oh God! Why did it not strike me earlier? We need to get out of here. NOW!" His voice was as strained as his body.

He grabbed the dagger from her, held the torch in front of him, and ran. “Follow me!” he shouted over his head.

"What's the sudden rush?" she called after him.

The dagger blade rattled as his hand hit the rock.

"Spiders!” he yelled. “If the strength of that cobweb is anything to go by, we might actually encounter a huge spider. And I am not talking about that baby tarantula!"

Fearful, she scrambled after him.

Slash! He cut through a cobweb with the dagger. The silence right after was uncanny, till it was marred by their hurried footsteps. It heightened his fear.

Slash! Another cobweb. Another cut with the dagger.

He knew they should be quieter. All the noise would seem like ruckus to any creature dwelling in the sinister cave. But walking with stealth would only delay the inevitable, not prevent it.


He kept up the pace. He strained his ears for any sound other than their footsteps or…Slash!…the interspersed sound of steel slashing through spider webs. The spacing between webs became so predictable that he heard the slash in his head right before it actually happened. Slash! He just wanted to face the inescapable; the mystery was killing him.

And then, instead of hearing another slash, he heard his prayer being answered.

At first it was an imperceptible tap on the ceiling. He stopped. She stopped. Michelle had heard it too. Both looked up. There was nothing but emptiness, near and beyond.

But then they saw two red unblinking eyes, like large crimson globes. Each globe the size of their heads. A monstrous spider, as if the Mother of all spiders.

A flurry of taps followed, and he knew she was coming after them.

"Run!" He screamed and pushed Michelle onward.

Michelle broke into a mad scramble. She did not need to look. She knew what was upon them. He dashed after her and so did the giant red globes.

He chafed his arms at every turn. The spider was right behind him, following at a leisurely pace it seemed. It was a game for the spider, his precious life for him.

At a sharp corner, he banged shoulder-first into the rock and let out a sharp cry. But there was no time to stop. He clutched his bruised shoulder and kept his feet moving. It seemed like an interminable sprint, bound to end in their death. If it comes to that, he thought, I just need to buy Michelle enough time to escape. I must not let the beast hurt her.

"I see light!" Michelle let out a shrill cry.

He heaved a sense of relief. Just a little further, just a little more, he told himself.

And just when thoughts of freedom were on the cusp of reality, he rammed into a stationary Michelle from behind. Michelle hit the floor face-first as he tumbled on top of her. She screamed in pain as her jaw hit the rocky floor.

He rolled off her and tried to help her to her feet.

"Why did you stop, Michelle? Come on, get up! We can’t stop."

She writhed in pain and tried to mumble an answer while massaging her jaw, "…the light."

He looked up to see the light at the end of the tunnel. What he saw both scared and flustered him. There was light, yes, faint buttermilk daylight streaming through an opening a hundred yards away. But, right in front of him, barely five yards away, were two giant red globes gleaming in near darkness. Exactly like the red globes behind him.

Another spider! A bead of sweat fell on the tip of his nose.

He understood why the first spider had moved at such a leisurely pace. It was waiting for its partner to close off their prey. Now, he and Michelle were trapped. She was hurt and scared. He reeked of fear himself.

But, fear can be a wonderful force. Once you understand you are in its grasp, you'll either run from it or fight it. Either is a struggle. The more you do it, the firmer the grip of fear in your heart. He understood that fear was clutching his heart. But he neither ran from it nor fought it. He embraced it. Fear flowed through his veins, but there was a difference - he was channeling the power of fear, and not the other way around. At that moment, he understood, fear can be a wonderful force.

He picked up the dagger and circled around Michelle. “Come on, you filthy creatures! You’ll have to kill me before you can touch her!” he yelled.

As if accepting his challenge, the first spider lurched toward him. He slashed in the air, thwarting any advance that the spider had planned. It was a small victory, but he knew they wouldn't be able to survive for long if they remained holed up between two giant spiders. He had to trick them somehow. Or kill them.

He heard Michelle sobbing as she cradled her hurt jaw. The spiders, however, were in no mood for sympathy. The second spider made a cautious advance toward him. He slashed hard at the creature, but the spider parried his blow.

He was suddenly alarmed. What had parried his blow was not a spider leg but a pincer, like that of a scorpion. Was it a spider or a scorpion?

The second spider danced forward again. He raised his hand to hack. Except, this time the spiders were expecting this ploy. He heard pincers click behind him. Oh no! The first spider was on the move behind him. It caught his dagger-wielding hand in midair. He twisted his hand just in time and jerked it out of its razor-sharp pincer.

Luck eluded him. His thumb was a tad bit slow. It got caught in the pincer. And it got snipped off!

He remained stumped for a moment. And then came the incessant, painful shriek as his left thumb rolled away into darkness.


Yoni, My Savior!

I wake up shrieking, or was it in the dream? I cannot tell for sure. The grating wailing still buzzes in my ears, and my mouth is dry from all the wailing. My mind is disoriented, lost between two worlds, till morning sunshine slaps me across the face and brings me back to reality. The cave is gone. Darkness replaced with daylight. I am in a hut, but a nicer and larger version of the “prison” I was in earlier.

Why am I having such wild nightmares? First a seven-headed snake and now a spider-scorpion couple? A sense of betrayal wafts over me, and I feel a sudden urge to lambaste my brain. It cannot even remember my name, but it can imagine freaks of nature with utmost ease.

I close my eyes, forget the dream, and breathe.

Crisp morning air enters my nostrils. Hmmm...wet grass. I sniff. And flowers. Lavender, definitely! My heart jumps with alacrity. The fragrance invigorates my every pore. My face relaxes into a smile, and I reach out to savor the whiff with my nose. Nice!

I open my eyes and arch my head to the right. Next to the stone bed is a flat wooden table, and on it is a clay pot with stalks of lavender flowers. Right next to it, in another pot, is a queer bulb-shaped plant with silver-green leaves. I do not recognize it. I extend my left hand and reach out for a stalk of lavender. How nice would it be to hold it and smell it up close?

But before my hand reaches the flowers, I stop. Something catches my eye. Rather, the lack of something. I gulp hard and swallow in the agony.

My left thumb is missing!

A lump grows in my throat. I cannot swallow. I cannot speak. I pull my hand closer to get a clearer look. I blink fervently, like a magician bewitching with his eyes. But reality doesn’t change. No thumb appears. It had been a clean cut. There is a stump where the thumb had been. A fit of palpitation grips me. Fullness in the chest and throat make my breaths shorter and harder. I start massaging my chest and force myself to gulp more air into my lungs.

Was the dream true? Are my nightmares some sort of twisted reality?

And at that precise moment, it returns. Not my memory, but the unbearable pain in my head. A thousand tiny nails start pricking me from inside, each prick more excruciating than the last. The pain is more than I can tolerate. All semblance abandons me as I fall into a single, uncontrolled bawl of torture. I howl. I shout. I clench my eyes shut. Tears fall along my cheeks.

I hear hurried footsteps outside my room. I try to get a grip on myself, but I can still feel my facial muscles grimacing in unremitting pain.

“What happened? Are you okay?” an old woman asks as she bolts into the room.

Another bout of pain erupts, and so do my vocal cords. “Do I look okay?”

I toss around in the bed, clamp my head between my hands, and clench my teeth together.

She dashes to the side-table and plucks a few leaves off the bulb-shaped plant. She thrusts the leaves toward me. “Here, eat these. They’ll help with the pain.”

I don’t ask; I don’t say anything. I grab them all and shove them into my mouth, all at once. The woman opens her mouth in protest, but I am already halfway down to grinding the leaves into pulp. I munch hungrily and don’t stop till I swallow the last shreds. Head buried in the soft shrubbery on the stone bed, I wait.

Soon a battle ensues, the pulp from the leaves flooding my head. The prickly nails fight back. Just when I am about to give up, I get a hit. A hit like no other. My head swims in an ocean of solace. I take to the sky, soaring into the clouds, wings spread. Serenity wraps me in a bubble and gently lays me on the bed. The pain is gone.

“Are you okay?” the old woman asks with a soothing gentleness in her voice.

I nod. “Thanks!” I say.

The crease on her forehead relaxes and color returns to her cheeks. There is a glint of relief in her deep brown eyes. She has an aura of a gracefully aging grandmother. A tiara of white shrub roses adorns her white locks. Like everybody else, she wears a pine skirt, but the color of her skirt is white not pine green. Apart from the white lilies covering her breasts, she is not wearing any ornate flower-accessories like Azura.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“I am Yoni, the Ayurvaid.”


Her wrinkled laugh lines around the lips broaden into a smile. “A doctor, in your language.”

“Oh!” I say.

She says, “Queen Azura would want to know that you are awake. I’ll get her. If the pain returns, take a few more leaves of this plant. Okay?”

“May I get some water first?”

“Of course, of course.”

She rushes to the other side of the bed. There, sitting atop another wooden table is a spherical clay vessel covered with a lid. A cup rests upside down atop the lid. She picks up the cup, removes the lid off the vessel, and pours me a cupful.

I quaff three full cups of water before I let her go.

Alone again, a sense of tranquility engulfs me. In the stillness, I try to recall my name, my past. When nothing surfaces, my mind reverts to the dreams in search of answers. I now realize that the dreams have reality hidden behind fantasy veneer. When I first dreamed of Michelle and me, she said that we were on the North Sentinel Island. I didn’t know such a place existed till Azura told me so.

And then, I saw Azura carrying the same dagger that Michelle carried with her. I’d dreamed of that dagger before I actually saw it. That cannot be a coincidence!

Moreover, I dreamed of my thumb getting chopped even before I saw it missing. Not a coincidence! Are my dreams a reflection of my past? Is my mind showing me glimpses of what happened in the past? I cannot for a moment accept that I encountered creatures like a seven-headed snake or a spider-scorpion. Those must be figments of my imagination. Or were they as real and true as the missing thumb on my left hand? I might never know, but I need to piece together the bits that appear true. It may be the only way to uncover my past. Or, find someone who knows what happened to me… Azura! Yes, I need to wrench more information from her. She knows more than she told me, I am sure.

With no more leads to discern my past and no great memories to reminisce about, I think of Michelle. My heart leaps, my neck arcs, and my shoulders release the tension they were holding. Even though Michelle was only an abstraction fluttering through the fantasies of my mind, I cannot stop brooding over her. Is she a real person? I have no idea. But, I am not ready to wave her away as a speck of creativity. I close my eyes. I feel the touch of her lips on mine as she had kissed me in the cave. I push my lips forward and relive that moment.

I am lost in the feeling when I hear Azura’s voice. “I know those silver leaves give a hit, but not so much that you start kissing the air.”

My eyes jerk open. Azura stands in the door, flashing her white teeth from ear to ear.

I sit up. “I am sorry...I was only...”

She interrupts, “You don’t have to apologize.”

I purse my lips together in embarrassment and say nothing. She walks into the room, followed by Yoni and two guards. Yoni hastens to get a wooden stool, placed in the corner of the room, for the queen.

Azura stops her and says, “Wait, Dai Ma! I’ll get it myself.”

Interesting, I think. The queen doing her own work. Or is it respect for the elderly?

She brings the stool and sets it beside the bed. She perches atop the stool with the flourish of a queen.

I still cannot forget the way Azura had tried to wrench the truth out of me. She had drugged me without my consent. Though come to think about it, I had treated myself to those scarlet leaves she calls Truth Essence.

“You remember anything?” She comes straight to the point.

For some reason, I find a natural appeal in sarcasm. “Well, good morning to you too, Azura. I am doing lovely, by the way. Woke up bawling like a child thanks to the sweet leaves you gave me.” I look hard at her. “Sorry to disappoint you. You see, my brain has taken a particular dislike for that question. I am starting to think it’s because of the ‘leaf diet’ you have put me on. A leaf for this, a leaf for that. Do you people even eat actual food of any kind?” As if on cue, a deep pang of hunger rumbles from my stomach.

Azura faces the guards and says, “Please bring him some food from the kitchen.” One of the guards bows and scurries from the room.

“It’s good evening, by the way,” Azura says with the glint of a smile. “I hear your pain is getting worse. I understand you don’t like it, but the leaves of that plant…” She points to the silver-green leaves. “…are your best friends till you recover completely. Trust me.”

“Ha! Trust you? No, thank you.”

“As it suits you. But I won’t mince words when I say this – you are alive because we want to recover what you stole. We want you to remember where you hid it. I don’t care if you must drug yourself with those leaves every night. All I care is the answer to that question. Answer right and you live. Answer wrong, and you are dead.”

Threats and more threats. Why am I not surprised?

“What guarantee do I have that I’ll live even if I remember and tell you the answer?” I ask.

“You don’t. But we are not as inhuman as you outsiders. We will let you live if you help us recover it. However, I hope you understand that you’ll never see the outside world again. You’ll forever live here as our guest.”

“As your guest or as your prisoner?” I retort.

“I think I have made myself clear enough. Remember and live. Else, we wouldn’t hesitate to make an example of you to your governments in the outside world.”

“You think I care about the governments? Or the outside world? I might be from there, but I have no link between that world and me. No memory, no emotion, no care.” I shrug my shoulders. “And I equally don’t care about whatever you say I stole. Which is why I’ll tell you when it comes to me. There is no reason for me to hide the memories, as long as you promise to honor your word.”

Azura affirms, “You have my word. No harm shall come to you. You are our guest, and in Sentinel culture, guests are afforded the same courtesy as our God.”

And the deal is made.

I am unsure if I’ll ever recall what she wants to know, but at least I wouldn’t die for telling nothing, which for now is the only truth I know – nothing.

“Tell me something,” I say. “You addressed Ayurvaid Yoni as Dai Ma. What does it mean? Is she your mother?”

Azura looks at Yoni and smiles. “She is everyone’s mother. In our language, Dai means highest. Dai Ma is a respectful term for mother of the highest order.”

I nod.

“My queen?” says the guard who has returned from the kitchen.

Azura waves an approval with her hand. The guard enters with two servant girls in tow. The girls lay out a spread of wild fruits, roast meat, and a steaming pot of stew. My mouth tingles at the sight. I cannot wait to dig into the hot stew. It looks scrumptious!

“Thank you. You may leave us alone.” Azura waves everyone away.

I don’t ask for permission and help myself to the steaming stew. It burns my tongue, but I am too famished to care. I suppress the burn with a juicy pear and return to gulping the stew.

“You might want to take it slow, considering how long it has been since you have had solid food.” Azura tries hard not to make it an order.

I ignore her and don’t say a word till the stew and the meat are finished. Then, I take a golden apple and savor it.

“That was simply magnificent!” I finally let out the feelings in words.

“I am glad you liked the food. I would suggest that you rest now. The more rest for your brain, the easier for you to recall your past.” She stretches to her right and breaks a couple of silver-green leaves. “Here, chew some more. For the pain and for sleep.”

I don’t argue and take the leaves. I don’t want to suffer another bout of torment.

“Do you know what happened to me, Azura?” I blurt out the question that has been hammering me since I woke up.

“Now is not the time to divulge information that will worsen your mood. You are alive, and that’s all that matters.”

“Alive? Was I supposed to be dead?”

Azura bites her lips but doesn’t answer.

“I was supposed to be dead, wasn’t I? Come out with it, Azura. Tell me what happened?”

She curls her lips and fidgets with her index fingers. I can see her struggling to find the right answer.

Finally, she gets up, adjusts her headdress, and says, “That’s enough talk for one day. I must leave as I need to attend to urgent matters. I suggest you sleep. It is paramount that you rest your brain after what it has gone through. Otherwise, those killing headaches will not go away.” With that, she starts for the door.

“You haven’t answered me. At least tell me why I am having these headaches? Does it have to do with me escaping death?”

Azura doesn’t stop till she reaches the door. She pauses as if debating with herself. Finally, she turns around, steadies herself, and looks directly at me.

“You were shot in the head…”


“…and you have finally woken up after two days. It’s nothing short of a miracle.”

She removes something from the vines around her waist and tosses it to me. I catch it with one hand and come face to face with a stub of metal.

“Here is the bullet that was removed from your brain. Had it not been for Ayurvaid Yoni, you’d be dead.”

I have so many questions running through my mind, but not one reaches my mouth.

“Now, I must leave,” she says. “Sleep well and sweet dreams.”


Pincer Vs Dagger

Boom! A gunshot cracked through the cave and roared in his ear.

“Hold my hand!” yelled Michelle. Her voice was unsteady and frantic. She held a flare gun in her hand.

Boom! He flinched and opened his eyes to red flares illuminating the cave. His head was whirling and his vision blurry. He kneeled on the rocky floor, clutching his left hand in his right armpit. He tightened the grip on the left hand, which sent a deep, grinding ripple of pain through him. It brought back the agonizing memory of his left thumb rolling away. He screamed, more from the tormenting memory than the physical pain. As if on cue, a musty, metallic smell enveloped him. The smell of blood. His blood.

Boom! A third shot ricocheted off the rocky walls of the cave, leaving behind smoky, red flares.

“Get up! I can’t hold them for much longer,” said Michelle.

What was she talking about? He ignored her. The blood on his thumb-stump had started to crust. He returned to caressing it with his other hand. But then an image bobbed into his head. Red globes, sharp pincers, slit thumb. The spiders! He scrambled onto his feet, the adrenaline sweeping away the cloud that blurred his mind.

Michelle grabbed him with one hand. Her other hand remained extended, holding the flare gun in front of her. She was shaking vigorously. She wouldn’t be able to hold the bastards for much longer, he thought. A fresh spurt of adrenaline rushed through him as he cursed. So, he cursed again. It inflamed and infuriated him. It felt good!

Boom! The fourth shot elicited a gut-wrenching howl that filled the cave. He saw one red globe flitting in the direction of the clamorous noise. It was the second spider that had blocked their path forward. Only one dancing red eye. Where was the other one? And he understood that Michelle had hit her target. The light had gone out in one of the eyes. A bullet lodged in its place.

The creature bawled. The glow from the remaining eye jerked as it thrashed against the walls in the dark. The first spider rushed to its partner’s aid. Its red globes blazed brighter than before.

“Now!” Michelle shouted.

She grabbed his forearm and ran. In two strides, she stopped as she remembered something. She dropped his forearm, ran back a few paces, and bent down. He saw the faint gleam of the dagger as Michelle picked it up from where it had fallen when his thumb got clipped.

He said, “There is no time. Run!”

Michelle ran to him. “There is always time,” she said as she brushed past him, holding the dagger in one hand and the gun in the other. He scampered after her, barely keeping up. The creatures shrieked behind him. Loud, shrill wails. He increased his pace.

They dashed through the cave, toward muted, white daylight a hundred yards away. They reached the end of the path and realized that the exit wasn’t straight ahead, but overhead at a forty-five-degree angle through a five-foot-wide slope. It was a long and steep climb. But, a life-saving climb. They ran for the exit. And slipped right back. The cave floor was moist and slippery. They tried again. Same result. Overgrown algae made it impossible to press ahead on the slimy slope. Their boots did not have enough traction to push themselves up.

So near, and yet so far.

Michelle half-smiled at him. “Don’t worry. I know a way.”

She gave the dagger and the flare gun to him. “Stand guard.”

He pocketed the dagger and held the flare gun with both his hands. His grip was light. One thumb was no longer there to tighten his hold on the gun.

Michelle turned sideways and stood against the wall lining the narrow slope. She pressed both her hands against the wall. She lifted her legs, one at a time, and planted her feet on the opposite wall. She formed a perfect arched bridge atop the slithery passage. And slowly, she started to climb. One hand forward, one foot forward. Slowly, she hunched her way to the top.

She looked at him. “Easier for me, sweetie. Will be tough for you with your thumb…”

A loud screech tore through the stale air behind them. The spiders coming for revenge?

“No other way. I have to do it,” he said with conviction.

He holstered the flare gun and propped his hands against the wall. His hurt hand screamed in pain. He clenched his jaw. He lifted his feet off the floor and planted them on the opposite wall. The sudden pressure jammed his thumb-stump against the wall. The crusted wound ruptured. Blood oozed out, bathing his hand red. It softened his grip. He dug his nails into the ragged wall in agony.

“You can do it, darling. You can do it!” Michelle cheered him from above.

He panted and perspired and bled, but slowly and steadily, he climbed behind Michelle. A dull, humming sound climbed with them. The farther they went, the louder the hum became. Till water vapor floated around them, and the hum became a pulsating rumble of water. Tiny water droplets caressed them as they made their way up.

“It’s a waterfall!” exclaimed Michelle, nodding at the muted, white light ahead. The forty-five-degree slant culminated in an alcove, right behind a gushing waterfall.

The falling spray of water soothed his nerves. But he grew exhausted. Even without a mutilated thumb, the ordeal of maneuvering the climb was debilitating. The open gash made it worse. Every ounce of his body wanted to stop. Up ahead, he saw Michelle struggling as well. And they were not even halfway there!

Suddenly, he heard scraping behind him, like nails on a chalkboard. He turned his head. And there it was – the spider with two burning red eyes – trying to scrape through the narrow passage and exact revenge on them. But, it couldn’t fit into the constricted corridor. In the white light, he saw the creature with vivid clarity. The arachnid had eight pencil-like, hairy legs. Two sharp, white fangs hung in front. Green, gooey venom dripped from its fangs. The oddity was the two pincers in front. The pincers scraped the wall as it tried to climb.

Michelle breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God! It cannot fit into the passageway.”

The spider clicked its pincers in frustration. And then it stopped moving. It watched them with red, unblinking eyes.

He knew it wasn’t over. They still had to complete the climb. One misstep and they’d fall into the waiting pincers of the spider.

They continued, each step more measured than the last. Nothing could stop them now, except their own fall. Michelle reached the top of the slope, and cautiously entered the alcove.

He paused and huffed. Three more steps, he thought.

“Don’t stop! Come on, keep moving!”

He nodded and moved forward. Just two steps now. He looked at the spider.

The spider suddenly burst into motion. It pranced on its legs, clicking the pincers in frustration. It could see the prey getting away. Never to be seen again.

“Don’t look!” Michelle yelled at him.

The sudden alarm broke his concentration.

His hand slipped. His feet fumbled.

He fell.

He hit the slimy floor with a thud. His heart jumped into his mouth. He could taste its furious beating.

“NOOO!” squealed Michelle.

His mouth was too dry for words. What came out was a puff of exhaustion. Or maybe it was fear.

Droplets from the waterfall splashed his face as he tumbled down the algae-ridden slope, toward the waiting fangs of the spider.

The spider clicked its pincers in anticipation. Apart from the fidgety pincers, the creature became still. No prancing. No dancing. Just patient waiting.

“NO…NO…NO!” cried Michelle. The sudden shock made her intone a single word – NO—and she kept going with it, chanting it like a mantra. Probably in the hope that it would wind back the clock. But, the moment had passed. He had fallen. Limp and weary. And he was seconds away from being torn into a hundred pieces.

His fall picked up speed, a pure function of gravity thrusting him downward on the slope. He squirmed, trying to latch onto the last shred of hope hanging in the path to his death.

The spider waited. Michelle cried.

He flailed his loose arm, trying to grab any jagged corner in the uneven wall. But the dank air, the moist wall, and a sweaty hand made it impossible to grip the wall. It was like his hand was painting the wall with butter. There was no traction. No hope.

He braced himself. For the fangs to rip into his flesh.

The spider braced itself. For avenging its partner.

And just as the spider opened its mouth for a bite, two things happened.

One, he instinctively went for the dagger in his boot. A natural reaction after years of human evolution. Fight or flight. There was no chance of flight. None. That realization focused all his energy on one thing only – fight. And nothing helps your chances more in close combat than a knife. Unless, of course, you are a giant spider with pincers for hands.

Two, he jammed the dagger in the ceiling of the spider’s mouth. Right between the fangs. He twisted the blade and dark, gooey blood oozed from the mouth of the spider. He took out the blade and jammed it again. Quick and forceful. The spider squealed. Its pincers chattered haphazardly. He ducked underneath its belly, missing the bite of the pincers by a whisker, and jammed the dagger for a third time. This time into the soft, squashy belly. He twisted the blade. The spider screeched. Its legs wavered.

He went into a fury, jamming his blade in and out into the pulpy belly. In and out. In and out. He didn’t care about the sticky, warm blood that bathed him or its foul smell. In and out went the dagger. The spider staggered, as if its eight legs were on roller-skates. It stumbled and fell on its side, the red globes burning faintly. Then, there was only darkness in those eyes. The spider lay slain, unmoving.

He lay there next to the spider, breathing hard and gulping air. The dagger trembled in his hand. The adrenaline still gushing through his veins.

“Oh, God! Oh, God! Are you okay?” Michelle called out from above. Her voice echoed in the narrow tunnel.

He moved his chin up and down. He was too exhausted for words. None came out.

“Hurry,” she said. “The other spider might still be lurking there somewhere.”

He did not care about the other spider. Not any longer. He got up and sheathed the dagger. He turned toward the slope and started his ascent to the waterfall. The same as before, painful and slow.

He reached the alcove at the top, panting furiously and a little dizzy. He threw himself on the floor, next to Michelle. His chest heaved. His breathing unsteady. He didn’t have another ounce of energy to spend.

Michelle bent and stroked his hair. “Oh, sweetheart! Can’t tell you how relieved I am. For a second, I thought I had lost you.” She lowered her head and kissed him on the forehead. Tears fell on his cheeks. He opened his eyes. And smiled wryly.

“Oh, it’ll take more than a giant spider for you to get rid of me.”

She let her head fall onto his chest and hugged him.

“I never want to lose you. Ever.”

He felt her nails dig into his skin.

“Ever,” she repeated in his ear.

She slowly got up and helped him to his feet. He looked around. They were in a small alcove, just wide enough for the two of them. The tip of his head touched the ceiling of the nook. It looked like a water slide platform, culminating into a forty-five-degree slide on one end, and a misty curtain of the falling water on the other.

He bent a little and staggered the five yards separating the waterfall from the slide. He stopped as he came face to face with the thundering waterfall. Like shimmering white satin, it billowed with the wind. He was mesmerized. Huge water droplets pounded his face. Somehow, it soothed him. He stuck his right hand into the rapidly falling water, and the force nearly carried him downward. He flinched and stepped back.

“That’s the only way out.” His shout was nearly inaudible above the deafening roar of the waterfall.

“Where?” She looked around her, as if she missed a secret way out of the recess.

He said, “The waterfall. We need to jump.”

Michelle gave him a blank-eyed look. “You got to be kidding me. We can die! What if there are rocks at the bottom and we fall on them?”

“What do you suggest? We stay here instead and bang our heads against the walls of this tiny nook?” He was tired and agitated. “Or better still, we return and meet the spider that just lost a mate and an eye. I am sure it would be delighted to welcome us with open pincers.” He stood akimbo, and his eyes narrowed into a stare.

She raised her palms in defeat. “Okay. Whatever you say.”

He let his hands fall on his sides and sighed heavily. He came and stood next to her. He held her hand and said softly, “We are not going to die.”

She looked at him. “I am not afraid to die. But what if I lose you?” Her eyes reflected an intense sorrow burning deep inside her heart.

He took her hand in both of his, like cradling a fragile child.

“You are not going to lose me. Trust me.”

She nodded, “Okay.” She straightened herself and looked at the waterfall with renewed confidence. “Let’s do it.”

“Yes, let’s.” He gave her a sheepish smile.

But then a disturbing thought knocked on his head. “But...” He paused. “What if we get separated after we jump? What’s our rendezvous point?”

Michelle pressed a finger to her lips and looked at the ground, thinking.

He continued, “We fall, and the gushing stream takes you someplace and takes me someplace else.” He shuddered. “Not a rosy picture, is it?”

Michelle’s face suddenly lit up as she picked up on something he said. “Yes, that’s it!” she exclaimed.

His face crumpled into confusion. “What?”

“Rosy!” She looked at him with unbridled enthusiasm, as if she had cracked a tough puzzle.


“Yes! I know where to meet if we ever get separated on this trek…the Primrose!”

The Primrose? He was utterly befuddled.

She looped around him and cupped his hurt hand in her palm. “But we are not going to separate because I am not letting you get hurt again.”

She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Time to jump!” She pulled him forward, their faces inches away from the fierce waterfall.

She said, “On three, okay?”

His mind was racing. What was Primrose?


Where was Primrose?


Forget Primrose. Just don’t let go of her hand.


And the next moment, water gurgled in his throat, in his eyes, and in his lungs. He couldn’t breathe. He was falling. A heavy force pushed him down. He thrashed in desperation. And he didn’t realize until it was too late… he had let go of Michelle’s hand.


The Do-Over

“Wake up, uncle. Wake up!”

I stir.

“Uncle!” Soft hands tug at my arm incessantly. “Uncle!”

I stir again and open my eyes.

A little girl, maybe five years old, beams at me with a toothy grin. One of her front teeth is missing. I recognize her. She is the same, shy girl who ran away giggling when I first woke up after two days asleep. She wears a tiny pine leaf skirt, like Azura, like everybody else I have seen on North Sentinel Island. Nothing else - no flowers on her head or wrists to hold her back from exploring the joys of unfettered childhood.

“Oh, uncle awake! Uncle awake!” She jumps in glee and claps her hands in merriment, rejoicing at the huge accomplishment of waking me up.

“Uncle, let’s go!” She yanks my arm.

I look at the girl with her soft, brown eyes. Her long, curly hair runs amok, falling on her shoulders at the sides and on her dark caramel cheeks at the front. And flaring in the morning air is her petite beak-like nose, like Azura’s.

“Hello, little flamingo!” I smile.

She turns around. Looks right. Looks left. And at me with confusion frayed across her creased forehead. “Who you talking to?”

I sit up and playfully poke her little pear-shaped nose. “I am talking to you, little flamingo.”

She stamps one foot on the ground. “NOOO! My name is Aana, and I am not little. I am big.” She stands on her toes, hoists herself up and cranes her neck. “See! See! Maa says I am a big girl.”

I chuckle. “Oh! Maa says that? Who is Maa, Aana?”

She looks at me, puzzled by the question. “What you mean? Maa is Maa.”

“No, I mean what do you call her?”

Aana tilts her head questioningly to the right and her curls swing over her left eye. “I call her Maa.”

I bow my head and smile at my own stupidity.

I look up. “Sorry. I mean what do other people call your Maa?”

She stands upright and pushes away threads of hair from her face, as if getting ready to recite a poem in front of her class in school. “Queen Azuraaa,” she pronounces her mother’s name long and loud.

Azura? Isn’t she too young to already have a five-year-old?

“Uncle, did you meet my Paa?” Aana tilts her head the other way. Her curls follow suit.

“Your Paa?”

“Yes, Paa went outside. You come from outside. So, you must have met him. Did Paa send a toy for me from outside?”

She must have noticed my blank face because the glint in her eyes dulls a bit. Her shoulders slump.

“Sorry, I didn’t meet your Paa, kiddo. But I am sure the toy is on the way. Outside is far, far away. It will take a long time for a toy to arrive.”

She perks up at the suggestion. The glint in her eyes returns.

She grabs my arm and pulls it with all her weight. “Now let’s go, uncle. We are late. It will start.”

I let myself get pulled up by her. “What will start?”

“I can’t tell you. Maa said not to tell uncle. Maa said it is a secret.”

I narrow my eyes.

Aana starts pulling me toward the door. “Uncle, do you like secrets?” Before I can respond, she says in the same breath, “I like secrets! Should I tell you a secret?” She turns around to look at me. I catch the mischief in her eyes.

“Sure.” I puff my chest and let out a loud yawn.

“But you cannot tell anyone because it is a secret. Okay?”


“You promise?”

I nod. “I promise. I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“God promise?”

I sigh. “Yes, Aana. God promise.”

“No, you have to pinch your throat!” she orders. Like mother, like daughter.

I pinch the front of my throat, as a gesture to not lie under the “God promise” oath.

She looks around like a scared rabbit, her ears tense. No one is around. No one is listening. She looks satisfied. She waves with vigor, gesturing me to come closer.

I bend a bit.

“Closer.” Her voice is a bare whisper.

What is the big secret?

I sit on my toes and put one hand on the ground for balance. She walks to my right side, puts one hand on my shoulder, and hauls herself up. She cups the other hand around my ear, ready to spill the secret. I can feel her nose flicking my earlobe.

“Uncle...” I barely make out what she is saying. Her voice is too soft.


“Yes?” I whisper.

“BOOO!” she shouts in my ear. And takes off, giggling.

I recoil and rub my earlobe. Naughty kid! I run after her. “Come here, you naughty girl.”

She hears me coming and screams in joy. The chase is on. I follow her giggles to the adjoining room. It’s a spacious room with one long, knee-high community table sitting in the center. Nothing else. No chairs. No decorations. No rugs on the stone floor. The room seems like the central hub. Along its periphery are five connected rooms. Like the one I woke up in.

I notice Aana’s flowing curls as she takes a sharp left at the far end of the room and vanishes. She is fast. But I am taller. Five strides and I reach where I last saw her curls. I find myself at the end of a long, narrow corridor. Aana is standing at the other end of the corridor, waiting to dash out through the door behind her. Her face reflects sheer happiness. For her, it’s a game, and she clearly finds the race amusing.

“I am going to get you, you naughty flamingo.” I point to her and shout across the hallway.

She shrieks and giggles at the same time. She turns around, opens the wooden door and runs into the daylight.

I run across the corridor and burst through the half ajar door. But I come to a screeching halt as bright sunlight ambushes me. The glare blinds me. I shield my eyes with the palm of my hand. It is blazing. I cannot open my eyes. It feels as if someone poured hot acid in them. Staying indoors for days does that to you, I guess, especially if the room has no windows. I massage my eyes with the heel of my palms. I blink. Too bright. I blink again. And slowly, my vision returns. But my eyes still burn.

I look to my left and lock eyes with a huge guard standing at ease. He is a mammoth with a wobbly tummy that is pushing at the strings of his pine skirt. He holds a trident. The blunt end of the spear is resting on the ground next to his bare feet. He stares at me, ready to gobble me up whole. I swear I can hear the silent growls in his stomach. I avert my gaze and look to my right. Another guard stands there holding a trident. But this one is skinny with a thin, flowing beard at the chin. No other facial hair. Just a snaky beard hanging from the chin. Two sentries – Mammoth and Skinny – guarding the house. Or guarding me?

I turn and look at the house. Made of mud and wood, it appears more like a big hut than a house from outside. A temporary dwelling that one would burn down and move on. Except, it had not seemed temporary from the inside. It had seemed like a place where Azura might have grown up. Old and warm, not temporary and cold.

I forget about the house, use my hand to shade my eyes, and look around for the naughty girl. All I see is a clearing in the jungle. Around the circumference of the big hut are many smaller huts. All are identical – cubes wearing conical hats. Like circus jesters wearing bright mustard hats. All huts are arranged in concentric circles as if guarding the central hut from outside dangers.

“Why you stop? You are supposed to catch me, uncle.”

I follow the familiar voice to my right but cannot see the girl.

“Where you looking? I am here.” I feel the annoyance rising in her voice.

Finally, I see her. She is hiding behind a tree, barely ten yards from where I stand. I walk toward her, but she pushes away from the tree and breaks into a run. The game is still on.

I call behind her. “Aana, wait! Uncle is tired and can’t run any longer.” I lie. I bend, lower my head, and rest my palms on my knees. And make wheezing sounds for dramatic effects. As if one more step would kill me of exhaustion. She wouldn’t listen unless I put on a show.

I see her from the corner of my eye. She is hesitant at first, expecting a ruse. But the more I wheeze and pant, the more believable she finds me. She walks toward me, a step at a time. Wariness gives way to concern. She runs the last few yards and puts a hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

I shake my head.

She comes closer and pats my shoulder. “It’s going to be okay.” Her voice is serious and comforting. Like a mother would calm her child.

I smile to myself.

Now! I grasp her arms and roar with laughter, “Caught you! You naughty girl.” I grin from ear to ear.

Her face hardens. She isn’t impressed. Not even a bit.

“Cheater! You are a cheater. I am not playing with you.”

My smile fades.

She twists, breaks free and runs toward the bushy woods, shouting, “Maa! Uncle is a cheater. Maa!”

Nice work, you idiot!

“I am sorry, Aana.” I cry out after her. “Uncle is sorry!” I want to kick myself.

She runs along a narrow, beaten path that connects the huts. Like a linear line drawn across several concentric circles. I sprint behind her. And no sooner did I start, I hear dull, but heavy thuds behind me. I look back and find the two guards – Mammoth and Skinny – coming after me. I slow. They slow down too. I stop, expecting them to grab me and take me to Azura for upsetting her daughter. But they stop too. Ten yards from me. It perplexes me for a moment, but then I realize. They are just keeping the “prisoner” in sight at all times.

I push the thought away from my mind and turn around. I want to make amends with the little one. The least I can do is apologize to her. So, I survey the length of the beaten path, trying to track Aana. I see tiny legs broaching the end of the path, where it meets the dense forest beyond. But a moment later she is gone. Into the forest. Beyond the reach of my eyes.

I run as fast as I can. My breathing is shallow. I huff. But as I cross the circle of huts, I notice sharp, indignant stares from the few Sentinels out of their homes in the scorching heat. A mother carrying a baby on her hip squeezes the baby to her chest and runs inside her hut. As if afraid that I would take away her toddler. Three teenaged boys playing a game – of hitting and maneuvering a round stone with long wooden sticks – stop dead in their tracks as they see me. Their eyes flare. Their tongues shoot out. And they run away. Back to their mothers, I think. As if they saw a dead man walking. The same dead man their mothers warned them against, it seems.

Why is everyone afraid of me? If anything, I should be afraid of them. I am the prisoner here.

I look straight ahead and close my vision from distractions. I must find Aana. I reach the spot where the Sentinel huts end, and the linear path continues into the forest. But there is no sign of her. Where did she go?

“Keep going!”

I jump as a voice startles me from behind. I look and find the two guards, still ten yards out.

“What?” I ask.

“Keep going straight. Turn left when you hear water falling. You’ll find them there.” Skinny commands. Mammoth stares, trying to light me on fire with his eyes.

“Thanks. But why are you following me? I am not going to run away.”

No answer. Mammoth tightens his brow and continues to stare.

I shrug my shoulders. “Okay. Suit yourself, boys. I don’t mind two bodyguards at my service.” A sly smile escapes my lips. But they catch it.

Mammoth slams his right fist into his left palm and takes a step toward me. I clearly struck a nerve there, but Skinny grabs his arm and stops him mid-step. Mammoth curses. He jerks his arm away from Skinny’s grasp, but he does not argue with Skinny. I grin. He might be skinny, but he commands the mammoth.

I turn around and face the jungle. One step. That’s all it takes me to cross the threshold where staid civilization gives way to thriving nature. One step and I am surrounded by overgrown trees on all sides.

“Come on, boys. Don’t be shy now. You need to follow my ass around,” I call out to the guards as I make my way deeper into the forest. I hear deriding grunts from Mammoth. I ignore him.

The beaten path narrows with every step. I put one foot right behind the other, like a tightrope walker, to stay on the path. I don’t want to get lost in these woods. Heavy thuds pulsate behind me, and I know Mammoth is following me. I don’t need to turn around and check for Skinny. If Skinny wasn’t behind, Mammoth would be all over me by now – sitting on my chest and pounding my face into pulp.

I keep walking.

Soon the trees close on me. Animal growls and bird whistles fill the air. Fear crawls up my legs every time I lose the path, and relief flushes it down every time the path springs up again. For once, I am glad I have Mammoth and Skinny for company.

I hit an unexpected corner where the path divides itself into two, one continuing straight and one going uphill to the left. I stop. The pulsating thuds behind me stop as well. A steady rumble fills my ears. At first, it sounds like an undeviating gust of wind. But then I recognize it – the heavy, yet harmonious sound of falling water. I remember what Skinny had said. I turn left.

Each step magnifies the decibel level of the sound. Each step widens the circuitous path. In twenty paces, the sound booms in my ears. I continue to climb with the rising path. In fifty yards the path opens into a snug recess next to a white, smoky waterfall. A breeze of water droplets envelopes me and welcomes us to the secluded spot. It’s a place you would come to for two reasons only – either to shut the outside world and ruminate over your private thoughts, or, to commit suicide by leaping into the gushing waterfall and crashing on the rocky basin below. It’s a place you won’t forget if you see it once. And that’s exactly what my mind tells me. I have been here before. For what reason, I don’t know. But I have been here before for sure.

This is where I find them. Mother and daughter. Azura and Aana. Azura is sitting on a knee-high rock cradling Aana, who is sitting upright in her mother’s lap. They are only a few feet away from the thundering waterfall. They are too close. One misstep and they can fall with the gushing water. A pang of concern runs along my spine. I quicken my pace.

Aana sees me approaching first. She points a finger at me, shakes her head vigorously, and starts to speak animatedly to her mother. The waterfall is blasting. I can’t hear her till I am within a few feet from them.

“No, Maa! Tell uncle to go away.” I hear Aana complain to her mother. She shifts in her mother’s lap and looks at me with bloodshot eyes. She has been crying. When she notices me looking at her, she immediately looks away and hugs her mother tightly.

You screwed up, you idiot! My conscience smacks me.

I bend on my knees. “I am very sorry, Aana.”

No response.

I look at Azura. She smiles and prods me with her eyes to continue the apology. I force a smile.

“I should not have pretended to be tired to catch you. It was not fair.”

No response.

I hold my ears. “Look, I am holding my ears because I am very sorry, Aana.”

Suddenly, the little girl turns her head to look at me, maybe to ensure I am not lying about holding my ears. Once satisfied, she turns her head away. Still, no words are spoken.

Azura comes to my aid. “Aana, bad manners. When an elder speaks to you, you need to show respect and look at them. Come on. Enough drama.”

Aana’s face droops.

“I am very sorry, Aana. In fact, to show you that I mean it, I’ll do anything you say.”

I finally hit the mark. “Anything?” she asks.

I breathe a sigh of relief. “Yes, anything.”

In an instant her furrowed brow lightens up. The mischievous glint in her eye comes rushing back. She jumps out of her mother’s lap.

“You have to take me fishing in the reef! Now!”

The reef? I look at her puzzled.

Azura interrupts. “No, Aana. You know we have to go to the temple now.”

Aana’s shoulders slacken and her head droops a little. “But I want to go fishing in the reef. I don’t want to go to the temple, Maa.”

“I said no. We have to go to the temple now.” Azura says sternly.

Aana’s facial muscles contract, about to lever open the floodgate of tears. But before the tears start, I jump in.

“You know what, I’ll take you fishing in the reef. But only after visiting the temple. How does that sound?”

This cheers her up. She looks at her mother with pleading eyes for a stamp of approval. Azura sighs and says, “Okay. I guess you can go fishing with uncle, but after visiting the temple.”

“Yay! We’ll go fishing in the reef!” Aana jumps in glee and claps her hands.

“Okay, Aana. Now you stand with the guards,” Azura points to Skinny and Mammoth. “I need to talk to uncle here for few minutes. Then we’ll go to the temple together.”

“I don’t like guard uncles, Maa. Why can’t I stay here?”

Azura stands akimbo and towers over the little kid. “Aana, don’t argue. Go.”

Aana lowers her head and drags her feet to where the two guards are standing.

“Adorable kid,” I say as the little girl trudges away.

Azura snorts. “She is a brat. Keeps the whole village on its toes.” She then shakes her head and smiles. “But, yes, she is my brat, my adorable brat.”

Azura sits on the rock and asks, “So, how do you feel?”

“Better, I guess. Woke up smiling for a change.” I grin. “Thanks to your brat.”

Azura chuckles. She points to a rock next to her and says, “Come, take a seat.”

I nod and sit on the tiny, uncomfortable rock. I look at Azura and ask, “I am confused. What changed?”

She raises her brows. “What do you mean?”

“Yesterday, you didn’t trust me. Today, you trust me enough to even let your little girl come close to a prisoner. What changed?”

Azura eyes me. Then, she looks up, thinking. Her long, thin neck stretches like that of a swan. Sunlight streams through the trees hovering above us and falls on the chiseled contours of her face. She looks at me and says, “Since my ancestors first settled on this island, we have classified outsiders into two categories - enemies and guests. That’s it. No gray areas. You either come with malice, and we kill you, or you come with goodwill, and we go out of our way to accommodate you. The Truth Essence does the sorting; we do the rest.”

She pauses, leans forward, and points a finger at me. “But you are a gray area. The first one. We know you came with malice.” She straightens her spine. “But you are not that person anymore. The Truth Essence proved it. Custom demands that we treat you as a guest. And that’s what we are going to do.”

I nod at the two guards standing a few feet away. “Guards watching over makes me feel like a prisoner, not a guest.”

Azura laughs. “Oh, dear.” A huge smirk gets plastered on her face, a remnant of the hearty laugh. “You think the guards are there to watch over you? So that you don’t escape?” She shakes her head, grinning. “We are not worried about you escaping. This island is covered with dense and treacherous forests. So dense that at most places light can’t even penetrate the foliage of tall trees. Unthinkable creatures dwell in the forests. The forests have provided natural protection from our enemies for centuries. You won’t last one day if you lose your way in them. And even if you manage to reach the beach, where would you go? How would you traverse the miles of ocean surrounding the island?”

“Then why are the guards following me around?” I ask.

“They are for your protection. You are new here, a guest. You don’t know your way around the island. Like I said, you stray in the forest and get lost, you are as good as dead.”

I remain silent, absorbing what Azura has said.

A bird breaks the silence with her melodious, sing-song call. I find solace in the cuckoo’s singing. It soothes the incessant twitch in my head.

“But there is a reason I asked to see you here,” says Azura. “I have thought long and hard, and decided to give you an opportunity.”

“An opportunity?” I ask.

“Yes, an opportunity to start over with a clean slate. Forget the past and become one of us. Permanently.”

“I need to remember my past before I can forget it. Why don’t you tell me what happened? How did I end up here?”

Azura shakes her head. “I don’t know how you ended up here. We just found you, left for dead. An item precious to us was stolen and we assumed you had taken it. We searched the entire island for other outsiders, accomplices, but found none.”

Found none? I think. How about Michelle?

“That can’t be it!” I shoot back. “What else do you know?”

Azura sighs. “I have told you what I know.”

“You keep talking about this stolen item. What was it? Maybe if you tell me, it’ll jog my memory.”

Azura mulls it over. Finally, she says, “No. It is for you to remember and tell me. I can wait.”

I frown. “I stole something precious to you and you are telling me that you can wait? You do realize that I might never remember it.”

“Yes, I am aware of that possibility. But, I am not worried. Two reasons. One, it wasn’t the only item of its kind. There are many more. It’s precious, but not unique. Two, I am sure it’s still on the island. You hid it somewhere because you never left the island and we didn’t find it on you. You remember what you stole, great. You don’t, that’s fine too. The item remains hidden somewhere on the island.”

She pauses, and looks at me closely. “I would have been worried, panicked even, had it been taken to the outside world. I am glad it hasn’t.” She smiled.

I remain silent, my mind in a state of tumult. Should I tell her about my dreams? About Michelle? They never found Michelle. Maybe she took the precious item to the outside world? A multitude of thoughts inundate my brain, but none reach my lips. No, I mustn’t tell. I mustn’t put Michelle in danger. Plus, there is that tiny possibility that my dreams are not real. I decide to wait and watch. I say something stupid, and it wouldn’t take Azura long to change my status from “guest” to “enemy”.

Azura says, “Look, I am giving you an opportunity to start afresh. A new life, a worthy life.” She puts a hand on my shoulder and continues. “Stop fussing on who you were. You can choose to not be that person. Be who you want to be now.”

“From where I stand, there is no choice. I don’t know who I was. So, I can’t be that person. I am who I am right now.”

She smiles. “Good. Then there is only one thing left to do.”


“The initiation ceremony. To make you one of us. That’s why we need to go to the temple. My people would never fully accept you till you formally become a Sentinel at the feet of our God.”

I must be looking alarmed because Azura says, “Don’t worry. Every toddler goes through it to become a Sentinel. It’s not a test, only a religious ceremony.”

I nod. And I keep nodding, trying to convince myself that it’s the right decision. The word test echoes oddly in my mind.

“Wonderful!” Azura clasps her hands and stands. “Let’s go to the temple.”

I follow Azura to the guards. Aana stands in rapt attention in front of the guards, her arms folded, her lips pouted. The kid looks like a vexed army general, ready to blast off the enemy with her stare. The enemy, in this case, is her mother. Though unlucky for Aana, the enemy knows her weakness.

“Who wants to go fishing in the reef?” says Azura, pretending to pose the question to the guards.

Aana bites her lips. Her eyes dart this way and that. She looks at the guards, hoping they would answer on her behalf. They stay mum.

“Nobody wants to go fishing?” says Azura, her voice riddled with sham amusement.

“No, no! I want to go fishing, Maa!” Aana finally breaks her silence.

“Very well,” says Azura. “We’ll go to the temple first. And as uncle promised, he’ll take you fishing afterward.”

“Yay!” The little girl jumps in delight, completely oblivious that she got handed the same deal twice, in return for her smile.

“Okay, uncle doesn’t know the way to the temple.” Azura points at me. “But I told him that Aana knows. Can you show him the way?”

“Yes, I know the way!” The kid runs to me and grabs my hand. “Come fast, uncle. We go temple. Then we go fishing.”

Aana jerks my hand forward, and we are soon on the trampled forest path that had led us to the waterfall. Azura walks behind us, followed by the guards, their footsteps soft thuds on the patchy path.

Aana remains tight-lipped. A sense of urgency comes from her. The earlier she reaches the temple, the earlier she can go fishing. So, she rushes us along, in silence. And as silence blossoms around me, I find myself deep in the spate of questions trying to drown me. All I want are answers.

How did I end up on this island?

Who tried to kill me?

But, one question bothers me most. The one piece of the puzzle that could answer them all – who am I?

We reach the point where the path diverges into two - one to the Sentinel dwelling and one that I have not yet seen. Aana turns left, onto the unexplored path. It meanders into the forest and in no time, we are surrounded by thick undergrowth. The farther we go, the tighter the foliage grows around us. Towering trees on either side of the path embrace each other to form a canopy above our heads. It darkens the path, eclipsing broad daylight.

“Are we there yet?” I ask Azura as restlessness grips me.

“Can you see anything that looks like a temple?” she says.


“Then we are not there yet.”

My shoulders droop at the reply. I trudge along.

“Whose temple is it anyway?” I ask without looking at her.

“It’s the Temple of Rebirth, the gateway to immortality.” Azura answers.

The answer befuddles me. “How can you attain immortality via rebirth? You have to die to be born again, no?”

“The first Sentinels believed that immortality is not about never dying. It’s about being reborn in a new skin, without letting go of your past or who you are.”

“Huh!” I shrivel my nose. “How does it help if you are born again in a child’s body, but with the past memory of an adult?”

Azura pauses before replying. “The term ‘Rebirth’ is only symbolic of the God that we worship. You won’t be reborn as a child. You’ll only shed your skin to be ‘Reborn’ into the new you. An adult you. It’s like changing your clothes without changing your mind or soul, but with a new lease of life.”

I see the temple shoot into sight in the distance. I stop in my tracks as my eyes fall upon an old friend. And suddenly, everything Azura just said starts to make sense. If the Temple of Rebirth is the gateway to immortality, then the God must be… A cold shudder rattles my spine as the answer hits me…the Gatekeeper!

I hesitate. “Erm… is your… erm… is your God by any chance a seven-headed snake?” I ask without taking my eyes off Saraph sitting in our path ahead.


The Initiation

“Yes,” says Azura. “We worship the God Saraph - a seven-headed snake. And right there is the Temple of God Saraph.” She points to the twenty-foot tall Saraph ahead. It sits perfectly still.

It is Saraph. No doubt. The same seven heads. The same horns, each adorned with a diadem. The same hands protruding from its belly and joined at the palms in greeting.

But it isn’t the real Saraph.

The horns are not emerald green. The diadems are not shining brilliantly. And the hands are not slimy red. The creature is charcoal black from head to tail. It’s Saraph but made of stone. The stone deity just sits there, reveling in its unmoving glory. The seven forked-tongues stick out, some less and some more. Like the living creature was turned to stone mid-motion with the snap of fingers. As if it didn’t have enough time to shut its tongues behind its many traps. Snap! And freeze.

The stone Saraph kindles in my heart the terror I experienced in the dream. I shiver but remind myself - it’s not real.

Azura comes and stands next to me. She looks hard at me and asks, “How do you know of God Saraph?”

“Huh?” I mumble.

“I never told you the name of our God. How do you know his name?”

I mull for a second but decide to come clean. Half clean. “God Saraph came to me in a dream. He showed me the path to heaven.”

Azura narrows her eyes. “What exactly did this ‘heaven’ look like?”

“No idea.” I tell the truth. “I just remember Saraph in my…”

Azura raises her finger and cuts me mid-sentence. “Not Saraph. If you are to become one of us, he is God Saraph to you.”

“Okay,” I say nonchalantly, while rolling with laughter in my head. It’s a stupid rule, but I know better than to make fun of it in Azura’s face.

“Like I was saying, I just remember God Saraph pointing me toward the path to heaven. That’s it.” I cut out Saraph’s savage push into the Spider-cave, but then Azura doesn’t need to know it.

Azura’s creased forehead relaxes. The tension subsides. Aana senses this and speaks up, “Maa, let’s go!”

Azura nods. “Yes. Let’s.”

We resume the final stretch to the temple. The path curves abruptly to the left and narrows with each step. Crow chatter fills the air. The dense foliage thickens until I reach the stone effigy of Saraph. The path ends there. A dead end. It is blocked by a giant redwood tree right next to the sitting deity. I track the height of the redwood with my eyes. Bottom to top, it must be at least a hundred feet.

A crowd of maybe twenty people gathers around the redwood, each person holding a small basket of white flowers. They stand in two parallel lines, alongside a carpet of red roses that ends at the redwood. One line of men only and one line of only women. Men are bare-chested, while the women hide their womanhood behind flowers gracing their breasts. All are dressed in pine skirts. They seem to be waiting in anticipation for some guest of honor, who would walk the red carpet while they shower flowers from their baskets. I pump up my chest. Guess I am the guest of honor. My lips stretch into a smirk.

We stop short of the carpet of roses. The crowd stops murmuring suddenly.

“My queen!” says a deep baritone voice.

I expect a man from the deep-throated voice, but a woman steps out from behind the statue of Saraph. Two trident-bearing guards follow her. The woman looks as old as Saraph’s statue. She is dressed exactly like the guards. In addition, two circular bands of pink flowers clasp her arms. A similar circlet sits snugly on her bald head. I would have marked her as “pretty”, had it not been for her puffed-up physique and sharp, angular features, despite the old age.

“Commander Bani.” Azura nods an acknowledgment.

Bani steps forward and bows. She takes Azura’s right hand into both of hers and kisses it with her thin lips, not once taking her eyes off Azura. I get a sudden urge to push Bani aside and take Azura’s hand in mine. I stop myself. Am I jealous? Why? I am starting to like Azura, but I don’t like her that much. Or maybe I do? I check my thoughts before they tumble into a far-fetched fairyland.

Bani l